Not An Expert, Don’t Want To Be

via Pete Prodoehl on Flickr.

If you believe that one of the biggest perks of working in a helping profession is the feeling of being an ‘expert’ – of sitting in the ‘power seat,’ disseminating your vast knowledge to the masses of individuals coming through your office door, it would hardly be an original thought.

After all, we grow up consuming media that tells us this is the case. The renegade doctor diagnoses and cures the patient’s invisible-to-everyone-else disease; the new teacher wins over a group of hard-luck, no-hope inner city kids everyone else has given up on; the ‘wounded-healer’ therapist coaxes a troubled, but secretly genius, youth into a more meaningful life; and the list goes on.

Why do we so revere these helping figures? What gives rise to our belief that these otherwise normal, imperfect human beings possess powers beyond our own to solve our problems?

The oversimplified answer is that we live in a fast-paced, quick-fix culture. Have a cold? Take this medicine. Feeling sad? Take these pills. Not sure what to do with your life? Find someone to give you the answer. Anything will do, as long as it doesn’t involve a significant personal investment of our own time, effort, or mental energy – after all, we’ve got better things to do.

We ascribe power to those who can give us these answers. We assume that they possess some quality that we do not. We are the problem, they the solution.

It’s a useful fantasy, to be sure. But it’s ultimately flawed.

I’d be willing to bet that if you talked to 10 people working in a helping profession – doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, counsellors, advisors, etc. – and 8 or 9 of them will admit that, over the course of all their interactions with the people they serve, they’ve been the ones who have learned the most.

So, while I will fully admit to getting a sense of satisfaction from knowing that something I’ve said or done has meant something significant to another person, I (more importantly) also fully embrace the knowledge that I’m learning new things from the people I work with every day, and that’s never going to change.

It’s a wonderful privilege simply to hear people’s stories. To go a step further and use those stories as tools for constructing new meanings and experiences is, to me, quite an honour. I’m regularly inspired by the things I hear, and I’d like to share just two of the most impactful lessons I’ve learned from those I’ve worked with over the past few years.

Resilience is more common than fragility

We’re tough cookies – this is one lesson that I’ve been learning over and over and over again. It can be staggering to hear about the kinds of challenges that people face. Naturally, it’s easy to be absorbed by well-meaning sympathy at such times, but most often that’s not the most resonant or helpful information to reflect back to them. I’ve learned that taking the time to point out people’s resilience is always worth it. I’m not sure why, but in my experience most people are quick to overlook situations in which they’ve overcome or simply survived through hardship. Reminders to acknowledge one’s resilience can go a long way.

Young people want their lives to mean something

I always knew this was true for me and my closer friends, but it’s not hard to look at the behaviour of anonymous youth out in public and come to the conclusion that we’re all just a bunch of vapid, self-absorbed consumers. But I’ll tell you one thing – in almost every in-depth career conversation I can remember having with a student, the “M word” has come up as a significant factor in career decision making. Meaning is important – this seems like a statement of the obvious, doesn’t it? In practice though, it’s one of those things that is often relegated to the back seat in favour of other, more ‘practical’ factors. Of course, defining “personal meaning” – subjective as it is – is no simple task, but that’s half the fun!

Lifelong learning is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? I suppose the bottom line of this post is that ongoing reflection on that learning is a valuable process, even if the lessons are sometimes harsh. Ultimately, while the feeling of being an ‘expert’ can be nice for a little while, it can also be pretty limiting – from a professional development standpoint as well as a helpfulness one. So if you find yourself in the “client” chair in a helping professional’s office anytime soon, know that – if they’re worth their salt – they’ll be learning just as much, if not more, than you during the process.

*Cross-posted in Dave’s Diary at the Career Services Informer.

** Photo by  Pete Prodoehl on Flickr, under Creative Commons license.